Sandwiched between Barrow and Dalton in Cumbria are the magnificent and substantial red sandstone remains of Furness Abbey set in the beautiful Vale of Nightshade, a narrow wooded valley. These ruins moved Wordsworth in ‘The Prelude’ to emote: “...a mouldering Pile, with fractured arch,
belfry, and images, and living trees,
A holy scene!
The abbey was founded in 1123 by Stephen, who later became King of England. First belonging to the Order of Savigny, Furness Abbey then became a Cistercian centre (known as the White Monks) when the two orders were merged into one c1150. Robert the Bruce raided the abbey in 1322, promising not to plunder or burn it, upon accepting a ransom from the abbot, John Cockerham.
The abbey’s fortunes—based on agricultural and mining interests—declined over the years as famine, plague and war took their toll. Still, at the time of its dissolution in 1537, it was the second richest Cistercian monastery in England. Its prestige and wealth bought influence for more than 400 years.
In April 1537 the last abbot, Roger Pyle, not wanting to face trial for treason for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace (a protest against the suppression of the monasteries), gave the abbey and its possessions to Henry VIII. Thus began the plundering of the lead, the breaking of the window tracery, and the dismantling of the buildings.
The extensive ruins—the original abbey was added to from the 12th to 16th centuries—reflect the powerful presence of the abbey’s wealth. A tour begins at the modern visitor centre and museum, which houses a detailed exhibition on the history of this splendid abbey. There is much here to capture the visitor’s interest. Look for the ‘green man’ carving which was once in the frater, the medieval cresset lamp and the grotesque human head once on a cornice. There are numerous engravings of effigies from the church nave and pieces of architecture.
The approach to the ruins begins at the great gatehouse and chapel where the visitors would enter. This leads to the Visitor Centre where there is an exhibition on the abbey and display of pillars and stone pieces. From the Visitor Centre, a large green expanse approaching the ruins once held buildings, including a guest house, kitchens and stables. The guesthouse had a porch, the sill of which still survives. An arch of a small gatehouse that led from the outer to the inner court also remains.
The cruciform shaped church—first built in the Romanesque style and later rebuilt in the early Gothic—is missing most of the nave and central tower, but some of the walls still stand. The Perpendicular western tower was built in the late 15th century. Though only 60 feet remain of its original 160 foot height, it is still a striking sight. It had a large traceried west window, external buttresses with canopied niches and statues on pedestals.
The nave consisted of three spaces divided by screens. There was a monks’ choir with a pulpitum screen, the retro choir area with a rood screen, and the area where the lay brothers choir was located. When the lay brothers no longer lived on the premises their choir area became an open space. Two bays of the nave are found west of the crossing. The presbytery was first built during the early gothic remodeling then again in the 15th century. Larger windows complete with stone tracery were added. Flanking the high altar are impressive sedilia covered with seven vaulted, tabernacled canopies. These seats served the priest and his assistants when celebrating mass.
In the south transept on the eastern side, just above the arches, is a band of decorative Romanesque mouldings used as facing stones. The chapels here were remodelled in the 1400s, one extended east and used as a sacristy for storage. A band of decorative Romanesque moulding is found above the arches.
In the north transept are the main doorway to the church and three surviving Gothic arches supported by columns. The arches defined three chapels whose ruined altar platforms are still visible. The main doorway was a mix of late Romanesque and early Gothic decoration. Parts of the flooring and a pillar piscina also remain in one of the chapels. Although the chapels first had stone ribbed vaulting it was taken down and replaced by timber in the 1400s during the rebuilding of the east wall.
The cloisters are too ruined to show the original covered rectangle surrounded by arcaded walkways. The large east range of the cloister sports five elaborate molded, round-headed 13th century arches and was the principal living quarters of the choir monks. Books were stored here in cupboards. To the east is the latrine block, built over a stream.
A two storey west cloister range, of early Gothic design, housed a kitchen, refectory, and dormitory. The ground floor had 15 double bays that were covered with stone groined vaults. Here were storage areas, a parlour, and a dining hall. The lay brothers’ dormitory was on the second floor. Little but low walls survive of the south range of the cloister. At right angles to the cloister was a frater 150 feet long and 40 feet wide. There was a pulpit, wall arcade, and carved grotesque heads on the cornice.
South of the cloisters was the infirmary hall where the sick were cared for. A small chapel, a kitchen, and a hall were located here. The kitchen was eight sided. Two of its fireplaces have survived. The chapel had three bays with ribbed vaulting, an east window with circular panels, a wall bench, and a piscina. Above the chapel was the chambers for the infirmarer. An earlier infirmary became an abbot’s lodging. It had a hall, dining chamber, bedroom, secretariat and private chapel. Parts of the upper floor survive.
The chapter house boasted large windows, a ribbed vault, and marble wall shafts and detailing. It was the second one built on the site. The chapter house was used for reading from the Rule of St Benedict, business meetings, and confession. Near the abbey is a medieval bridge.
Surrounded by trees in a secluded valley, Furness Abbey’s magnificent ruins are a ‘not-to-be-missed’ Cumbrian attraction.
One mile north of Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, on a minor road off the A590
Tel. 0 1229 823 420
Open: April-end Sep, daily, 10am-6pm, in Oct-end March, until 5pm; Nov-end March, weekends, 10am-4pm; closed 24-26, 28, 31 Dec and 1 Jan
English Heritage property; parking; visitor centre; education centre
Text and photos © by Barbara Ballard
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